Weightlifting, also known as Olympic-style weightlifting, involves lifting a barbell loaded with weight plates above the head. The two styles of lift are:
- the snatch, where competitors lift the weight in one movement
- the clean and jerk, where competitors lift the bar to their chest in one movement, then above their head in a second movement.
In each style of lift, competitors have three attempts at lifting the most weight possible for them. They are given placings for the separate styles, as well as for the lifts combined. Competitors are divided into weight categories. These have changed through the years, including a major reform in 1996.
Weight training in the 1930s
Laurie Hogan, the first New Zealander to hold a weightlifting world record, remembered, ‘Our equipment was pathetic – a few fixed barbells at Len Wilson’s Physical Culture Centre; a few mild steel bars, with collars screwed on; the weights were some pieces of boiler plate, with centre holes … We had no headquarters for training, so we would gather each Sunday morning at Jack Elliot’s garage and spend most of the morning playing around with all kinds of lifts.’1
New Zealand beginnings
In the 19th and early 20th centuries weightlifting was generally carried out as part of fairground strongman displays or strength competitions at sports meetings. Weightlifting featured in the exercise regimes promoted by the physical culture movement of the early 1900s. Physical culture advocates also organised weightlifting competitions.
Weightlifting was part of the 1896 and 1904 Olympic Games, and since 1920 has been included in the summer Olympics. It became an organised sport in New Zealand in the 1930s, the decade when provincial weightlifting organisations were established.
The New Zealand Amateur Weightlifters Association was set up in 1935, along with an annual national championship. Jack Elliot of Auckland, known as the father of New Zealand weightlifting, was one of the key organisers. Weightlifters competed in provincial championships with the winners going to the national championships.
‘Minties moments’ at the 1974 Commonwealth Games
Superheavyweight Graham May’s gold medal-winning performance at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games produced some great television. Perhaps the most spectacular scene was his first attempt at a clean and jerk lift of 187.5 kilograms. May got the bar over his head but wobbled forward and fell on his face. He released the bar, which rolled off the platform towards the first row of the crowd. Fortunately the spectators, including Princess Anne, escaped unharmed.
Empire and Commonwealth games
At Auckland in 1950 weightlifting was included for the first time in the British Empire Games. New Zealand performed well with Harold Cleghorn winning the gold medal in the heavyweight division. Tony (Bruce) George was awarded silver in the middleweight division.
Since then New Zealand weightlifters have built up an impressive record in the Empire and Commonwealth Games. Heavyweight lifter Don Oliver gained a silver medal at the Perth games in 1962 and won gold at Kingston in 1966.
The 1974 British Commonwealth Games at Christchurch were a high point for New Zealand weightlifting, with the sport receiving mass publicity. Under Don Oliver’s coaching the New Zealand team won two gold, two silver and three bronze medals. Gold medal winners superheavyweight Graham May and middleweight Tony Ebert became household names.
Precious McKenzie, a South African flyweight lifter who was representing England, was another stand out figure at the Christchurch games. In 1978, McKenzie lifted for New Zealand, winning a gold medal at the Edmonton Commonwealth Games.
New Zealand waited another 20 years before the next weightlifting gold. Darren Liddel won three gold medals at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games in the clean and jerk, the snatch and the combined for over 105 kilograms.
At Manchester in 2002 Nigel Avery added two more gold medals to New Zealand’s tally, in the over 105 kilograms clean and jerk and the over 105 kilograms combined, along with the silver medal in the over 105 kilograms snatch. The Manchester games also produced New Zealand’s first female weightlifting star. Olivia Baker won a silver medal in the over 75 kilograms snatch and two bronze medals for the over 75 kilograms combined and over 75 kilograms clean and jerk.
In 2014 at Glasgow, Richard Patterson won gold for the 85 kilograms group, Stanislav Chalaev won silver for the 105 kilograms and Tracey Lambrechs won bronze for the over 75 kilograms. On the Gold Coast in 2018, David Liti won the over 105 kilograms category.
Olympic Games and World Weightlifting Championships
New Zealand has not performed as well in the Olympic Games or in the world championships. Harold Cleghorn’s seventh place in the heavyweight division of the 1952 Olympics remains the best performance by a New Zealand weightlifter at the Olympics. Olivia Baker’s eighth place in the 75+ kilograms combined category at the 2000 Sydney Olympics is the best performance by a New Zealand woman.
At 2013 the highest placed New Zealand competitor at a world championship was Don Oliver, who in 1957 was fifth in the heavyweight division at Tehran.